Best & Brightest: Recent Graduate Beats the Odds to Foster a Better Future - Higher Education

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Best & Brightest: Recent Graduate Beats the Odds to Foster a Better Future

by Michelle J. Nealy

Two hundred people had gathered in the auditorium to hear her speak, but Tiffany Brooks, a 2008 graduate of San Francisco State University, only saw one of them, her foster mother Doris Peeler-Brown.

Standing to deliver the keynote address during a fundraiser for the SF State’s Guardian Scholars, a program designed to assist emancipated foster care children access higher education, she honored the woman and the program responsible for her success.

“My mom stood by my side during the whole process,” said Brooks referring to her foster mom. “I love her.”

Brooks is the first graduate of SF State’s Guardian Scholars program, a program Brooks helped shape for future students. The Guardian Scholars Program provided Brooks, and other students who have aged out of the foster care system, with access to housing, food, work-study opportunities, scholarships and, most important, social and emotional support.

“Tiffany actually helped to shape the SF State Guardian Scholars program,” said Linda Chiu, a Guardian Scholar case manager. “She made valuable contributions to focus groups designed to tailor the program to SF State student needs.”

According to data from the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, in any given year, there are approximately 800,000 youth in the foster care system. About 300,000 of these youth are between the ages of 18 and 24, the traditional college-going years.

Studies show that only 10 percent of all traditional college-age youth from foster care enroll in some form of postsecondary education, even though nearly 70 percent have aspirations to do so. Researchers assert that approximately 100,000 college-age foster care alumni are missing out on higher education opportunities. Brooks refused to be among them.

At the age of nine, Brooks was forced into the foster care system. Her mother had abandoned her three years earlier and Brooks’ cousin resigned her to social services.

“One day after school, my cousin told me to tell a lady everything that I knew about my mom. I figured the lady was my cousin’s friend. My cousin promised that if I told, I would not have to go into foster care,” says Brooks, who had always understood that foster care was a looming possibility.

“I told this woman everything that I knew. One hour later, the woman drove me to live with a Latino family in a different city,” says Brooks, who is Black.

Over the next seven years, Brooks lived in seven different foster homes. School, Brooks says, was her release.

“No matter what was going on in my life, I always seemed to do well in school,” Brooks says. “I would tell myself, ‘I have to do well in school so my future doesn’t look like my past.’”

Most high school students receive guidance and support from their parents or other family members to pursue a college education. Foster children, typically, do not have this and often age out of the system at 18 years of age, losing all of the federal financial support they received while in foster care and much of the family support, researchers at NASFAA say.

Moreover, many children in foster care experience physical and mental health issues, several changes in elementary and secondary schools, homelessness, substance abuse, poverty and a number of other issues that impede their ability to gain access to higher education, a 2006 NASFAA study on foster care children and higher education reported.

Brooks, however, remained focused on her education. Extracurricular activities such as basketball and involvement in the Black Student Union kept her mind occupied.

Still, by the time Brooks reached high school, the hardship of foster-care life had taken a toll. Living with a family that had no regard for Brooks or her future, she asked her social worker to remove her from that home.

“That family was in it for the money. They didn’t care if I went to school. They wouldn’t give me a ride. They refused to buy me the things that I needed like underwear. They were in it for themselves,” Brooks says.

Jaded by the revolving door of new people, new schools, new friends and neighborhoods, Brooks hoped that her new home would be better. She desperately wanted to make it work; failure to do so could equate to a lonely existence come her 18th birthday when she would be left responsible for herself.

In the fall of 2001, while getting settled into in new foster home, Brooks had a serious conversation with her new caregiver Peelers-Brown. “I know that this is hard, but we’re going to work it out,” said Peelers-Brown.

And work it out they did. By Brooks’ senior year in high school, Peelers-Brown was helping Brooks navigate her way through the seemingly endless stack of financial aid forms, college applications and scholarship information.

Four years later, the pair celebrated Brooks’ college graduation together.

Last month, Brooks graduated with honors, with a degree in criminal justice studies. Brooks is planning to use her education to advocate for better juvenile and foster care in California. Currently, she mentors her younger foster brother, helping him make the right choices for his future.

Brooks is also planning to go law school. “I know that I will have to fight to have our voices heard,” Brooks says.

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